The Venezuelan government, which in two decades has expropriated billions of dollars in land and other assets of private companies, may now be turning its attention to the homes of millions of Venezuelans living abroad, experts say.
A census ordered this month by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to determine how many homes are empty is fueling fears that the regime is preparing the way for the massive confiscation of real estate.
Dozens of buildings and other types of properties have already been taken over by communal groupings that support the regime or by the Colectivos, the dreaded armed paramilitary gangs controlled by the government.
The census could put hundreds of thousands of properties at risk by giving those groups details of what the next targets might be, experts and activists said.
”For a long time, they have been thinking about the idea of capitalizing on” the exodus of Venezuelans, said lawyer and constitutional expert Leonardo Palacios.
The country has seen more than four million people — almost 15 percent of its population — leave the country, fleeing the economic collapse and the growing authoritarianism of the regime.
“Due to the massive emigration there are many homes that were vacated, that belong to people who left and who could not or would not sell for economic reasons,” Palacios added.
Maduro did not provide details when announcing the census, simply saying that he was ordering the XV National Census of the Statistical and Geographical System, originally to be carried out in 2021, to begin earlier.
But many see a threat, after Maduro said that the procedure would consist first in the collection of real estate information, and then in determining if they are occupied.
There are persistent concerns in the face of persistent rumors about the existence of the government program called “Locate Your House,” which encourages members of the communal organizations controlled by the government to identify vacant buildings that could be considered for eventual occupation.
The president of the National Federation of Judicial Workers, Emilio Negrín, who last week defended a relative’s apartment that was about to be taken over, said he had no doubt the program exists.
”This is a plan that they have put together to take over all of these properties,” Negrin said in a telephone interview.
The apartment belonging to Negrín’s relative was one of 12 in a building on Victoria Avenue in Caracas that had suddenly been targeted to be occupied because their owners were abroad.
Carlos Julio Rojas, a Venezuelan activist who advocates for the defense of property owners, said the occupation attempts are sometimes undertaken by members of the Colectivos.
These armed groups, known for using violence in favor of the interests of the regime, in the past have first begun to occupy the parking spaces of the structures and then taken over control of the buildings and their units.
Today the Colectivos are actively keeping track of properties that are empty, said Rojas.
“It is being carried out by armed groups, militiamen, and members of the communes, with support even from the National Police. They are already marking apartments that are unoccupied,” said Rojas, coordinator of the Front in Defense of North Caracas.
The move to confiscate empty properties is unconstitutional, Palacios said, but would not be unexpected from a regime that has long been taking steps to imitate Cuba’s government.
“All of that is unconstitutional,” Palacios said. “All of that goes against the right to property.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM